I am a proud Latina of Puerto Rican Hertitage, and enjoy celebrating my culture as a Latina, as an American and as a Latina who has obvious mixed African ancestry. Ever since I can remember I was always "Latina" or "Hispanic" or "Puerto Rican" and I grew up with the rich rhythms, language and cultural traditions that many Latinas grow up with. I never questioned what " I was" I just...was. I never had to answer questions about being "mixed, black, brown" or whatever, that is until we moved back to California and I got a little older.
"What are YOU mixed with?" " What is your heritage?" That was a common question I got and I wasn't sure how to answer it. I simply did not know, because it never was an issue or a question that I had been asked. I remember distinctly this happening on a playground once and answering to the young anglo male who asked me this question. " I am Puerto Rican", I answered. His response was "Yeah, right. Look at your HAIR! Your parents must have lied to you." This was a pivital point in my life, and I walked away from that situation wondering what he meant and why he would say that. I am Black and Latina at the same time. That us what I identify with and always will.
As time went on, these questions seemed to bombard me every day. It seemed as wherever I went, people wanted to know "what I was mixed with." I went to ask my mother " What do I say when they ask me what is my heritage?"
So I learned to adapt in order to avoid the questions, the conflict, and the confusion. ( I will cover that more in part 2 of this post) I was still very be proud of being Puerto Rican, but I was in a world that did not fully understand what that meant. Many of the Latinos around me did not look like me so I found myself often caught between two worlds, trying to navigate through explaining my "Latina-ness" to non-Latinos and trying to "prove" my "Latina-ness" to some Latinos who felt I did not fit in to be a part of their group.
I became frustrated by answering questions at such a young age. I found myself constantly, almost daily,giving a history lesson of the colonization of Puerto Rico. I did this as an attempt to explain to those that did not know what Puerto Ricans are why I look the way that I do. I did not have this problem on the East Coast, but on the West Coast during the 1980's and 1990's and even still today it comes up. As a Latina, I feel all Latinos are my brothers and sisters regardless of their skin tone, background, or hair texture. As an American, I feel that we should be united as one country. As a Black woman I see and live many injustices that non-Black Latinos may not experience. Unfortunately there are ugly stereotypes, biases, and perceptions that people still have that tear away at this unity.
There are some who say to me " Why must you say that you are proud of your Afro-Latina roots? We are ALL Latinos, no matter what color!" To that person I say yes, I agree we are, and I love that.Yet there is still a stigma attached in some circles in having anything to do with African ancestry. There are still people bleaching their skin, in an attempt to be "more beautiful". There are still those with a darker complexion or "afro-kinky hair" who do not see their faces represented in the mainstream. There is still an entire ancestral line that for many of us remains distant, hidden and unaccesible. People are now, more than before, beginning to express interest, pride and unity among exploring what it means to be Latino and including the effect of the African Diaspora on Latino cultures around the world.
I am loving how many new documentaries, articles, blogs and conversations are coming out around celebrating Afro-Latinos. I do not think it is divisive, but unifying. It is important to celebrate ALL of our ethnic heritage as Latinos and explore how the mixtures of races and ethnic groups add to the beauty that lies within the Latino culture. We are now showcasing diverse faces and associating them with beauty and not shame. More people are now, for the first time in their lives able to hold a head of kinky curls high and full of pride. We are making strides to highlight and add beauty to part of us that has been hidden,denied, or even ridiculed for many years. There is an awakening to celebrating the beauty across the spectrum of what is Latino and including all shades and colors, hair textures, bodies, and facial features.This, my friends, is not divisive. It is beautiful. It helps all of us to go "Pa'lante", so that no one gets left behind, written out of history, shut out, or hidden for the color of their skin, or the texture of their hair. We need each other! Let's celebrate together- in unity,understanding and peace!
I am both Latina and Black and proud to be!
~Vanessa Magali Oden